Sea whip and other marvels

For more than 20 years, Estée Lauder, the world-renowned, manufacturing group of companies named for its founder that has been in existence since the 1940s, has been listing P. elisabethae as an active ingredient in its Resilience face creams. How many of the users of the Estée Lauder line are aware that P. (Pseudopterogorgia) elisabethae is actually one of a type of a coral known as Sea whip that is found on the ocean floor is not known. However, according to scientists, the coral has a long whip-like growth that releases a toxin when attacked by predators. While it repels the coral’s predators, this compound, Pseudopterosin, is anti-allergic and skin-soothing even for sensitive skin.

Furthermore, five years ago at the International Conference on Oceanography and Natural Disasters researchers reported that the same Sea whip coral can potentially be used as an anti-cancer compound. To date, Sea whip has been found in the tropical Caribbean portion of the Atlantic and documented in the Florida Keys, Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, The Bahamas, Belize, and Mexico. Some 4,000 kilogrammes of the coral at a time is harvested for commercial use and it grows back within 18 months. The researchers also reported that other corals are being investigated for anti-cancer properties.

One would imagine that all this is good news for the world and that such research that would be funded and pursued with alacrity. But this does not seem to be the case outside of biomedicine circles.  Instead, apart from the drilling for oil that is constantly widening, the ocean floor is being explored for minerals potentially worth billions of dollars, including iron, copper, cobalt, manganese and rare earth minerals like those used in the manufacture of magnets, x-ray and solar systems, aircraft engines, televisions, computers and cellular phones.

While the actual exploitation of the sea bed for minerals has not yet begun, many countries are eager to start based on what has been found in the exploration to date and this has raised some amount of consternation.

When member countries of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) met in Jamaica in July this year, they were faced with a petition from international environmentalists and conservationists expressing deep concern “about the potentially irreversible losses of marine biodiversity which will likely result from deep-sea mining.”

The ISA is part of the United Nations and the concerns taken to it have borne fruit with the UN, according to the BBC, beginning a process on Tuesday last that will eventually lead to a treaty that protects the high seas from over exploitation. The UN had already adopted the Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which became active in 1994, the BBC noted. This convention regulates sea-bed mining and cable-laying to some extent and a host of other international groups look after aspects of the seas, but there is no overarching treaty that would protect ocean biodiversity or limit exploitation.

The UN is likely to face opposition to its proposed treaty. The US had opposed the UNCLOS in 1994 and other countries which already exploit international waters for fishing and other reasons and might be eyeing the potentially lucrative deep-sea mining will undoubtedly not be too thrilled. The process is expected to take some two years.

And while the treaty, when it is signed, will be legally binding, there is still worry as to whether it will be enough to protect what is considered the last frontier in the battle to protect the earth from climate change. According to the BBC, “Experts believe that the oceans of the world are vital for a number of reasons. Scientists say they capture around 90% of the extra heat and about 26% of the excess carbon dioxide created by humans through the burning of fossil fuels and other activities.”

There is a saying that man is his own worst enemy. Most of what is being done by the human inhabitants of earth points to this being absolutely true. There is no evidence that much of the world’s forests—the lungs of the earth—would have survived if impediments were not placed in man’s way. In fact, attempts at deforestation continue even today in spite of them. Also ongoing are air and water pollution, sometimes in ignorance, often deliberate when there is money to be made.

Unfortunately for some of us, there is less money to be made in the discovery of cures for illnesses from Sea whips and other marvels of the sea bed, than there is from mining, which regardless of how well it is monitored will disrupt, affect or damage the ocean’s ecosystem. We have all seen how well that played out on land. But mankind has never been known to leave well enough alone. We can only await the inevitable fallout.

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